Pick by pick, Trump is reshaping the GOP

Most of his senior staff and cabinet appointments have stressed racial, ethnic, and religious identity in the recent or distant past. It marks a different vision of the Republican Party. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama speaks to media at Trump Tower in New York Thursday. President-elect Donald Trump has picked Senator Sessions for the job of attorney general.  

Many voters backed Donald Trump as the candidate most likely to change the way Washington works. Senior staff and cabinet appointments announced so far indicate they may get their wish: Mr. Trump appears to be assembling a team eager to upend aspects of American political orthodoxy.

Steve Bannon as chief strategist, Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, and Michael Flynn as national security adviser are all box-busting selections in their own ways. Mr. Bannon, ex-head of conservative Breitbart News, is a self-described “nationalist,” though he resists adding “white” to the front of that descriptor. Senator Sessions (R) of Alabama is a Southerner who has made restriction of undocumented immigrants a signature issue. Lieutenant General Flynn is a retired intelligence professional who believes that Islam itself is at the heart of the United States’ problems in the Middle East.

What these three white men share is an emphasis on the importance for governance choices of racial, ethnic, and religious identity. Whatever this means for Trump administration policy, it might herald a reorientation of US politics along those lines. On one side: a Democratic Party dependent on minorities and more-educated whites. On the other: a Republican Party of less-educated whites, especially males.

That would be a Republican Party that’s fully Trump’s, not Ronald Reagan’s. The GOP’s old emphasis on low taxes and small government seems to shrink in importance by the day.

“This pivot could create fundamental change in the party system,” tweeted Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan on Friday.

More choices ahead

It’s possible this perception is just the result of Trump’s early personnel picks, and could soften as cabinet staffing proceeds. Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is meeting with Trump over the weekend, and some reports say the men will discuss the secretary of State position. Mr. Romney at Foggy Bottom, plus someone such as former Democratic Virginia Sen. Jim Webb at the Pentagon, would make establishment Washington much less jittery about Trump’s White House team.

But “discussing the secretary of State position” might be literally that, as in, “who (besides you) might fill that job? What about Ivanka?” And there are no real indications that Senator Webb, or any other conservative-leaning person with experience, is in line for the Department of Defense.

And so far, Trump hasn’t been reaching outward for his personnel picks. He’s turning in toward his trusted mates, the people who marched with him from the beginning. Bannon and Breitbart News were pro-Trump from the primaries on. Sessions was one of Trump’s first name backers. Flynn, fired by President Obama as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency after only two years, has been a fiery Trump surrogate – one of the few with real national security credentials.

“For all the talk of heterodox Trump positions, his picks & announced policy agenda are so far consistently to the right of the Bush [administration]” tweeted Michigan State political scientist Matt Grossmann on Friday.

Trump's picks

As a US attorney in Alabama in 1986, Sessions was nominated for a federal judgeship. But the nomination was rejected at the time by the GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee, due to concerns about Sessions’ racially charged words and actions.

Sessions was elected to the Senate in 1996. He now serves on the Judiciary Committee. He’s opposed immigration reform proposals as well as attempts to shorten mandatory minimum prison sentences.

Flynn, for his part, has spent most of his career as someone focused on operational tactics as opposed to national security strategy. By all accounts he was great at the former task. As an intelligence officer at the Joint Special Operations Command he played a key role in melding together data inputs from different US agencies into a single stream. This made it much easier for US forces to find – and target – Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.

On the national stage he’s emphasized the role of Islam per se in the wars of the Middle East. “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” he tweeted earlier this year, for instance.

Flynn has also claimed that sharia, or Muslim law, is spreading in the US, though there’s no indication that’s the case.

In general, Flynn’s emphasis on Islam contradicts years of US policy, which from George W. Bush on has held that it is corruption of Islam by violent terrorists that is the root of the problem. To condemn the religion itself is to shove hundreds of millions of Muslims into the category of “enemy,” whatever their own belief. That division of the world into religious camps is something Al Qaeda and Islamic State leaders would support.

On Friday, Trump also announced that he’s picked Rep. Mike Pompeo, a conservative Republican from Kansas, as his Central Intelligence Agency chief. Representative Pompeo, who attended Harvard, edited the Harvard Law Review, and then served in the Army, is less well-known than Sessions and Flynn. He served on the Benghazi Committee, where he was a sharp critic of the actions of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

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